Recently I convinced The Husband to spend 3 days in the middle of nowhere, in an Italian town we had never heard of, all because of a restaurant that had appeared on a list of the Top 15 “off the beaten path” restaurants a car rental company had emailed us.
(I want to say here that I’ve gotten two restaurant recommendations now from gimmicky viral lists and neither one of them have disappointed. One was even in a sea cave! So be open to things you find on the internet. But definitely, do your research.)
I looked at the list already knowing that our plan for this trip was to go back to Emilia Romagna, a region just north of Tuscany that is already known as the “food region” of Italy. Yes, in a country known for its food, this is the region that is really known for its food. Which isn’t to say that I haven’t had some of the best meals of my life in Tuscany or Piedmont or Rome, but Emilia Romagna is home to parmigiano cheese, aged balsamic, tortellini, and culatello, a specially prepared prosciutto.
Amerigo 1934 is a cozy trattoria with a Michelin star and a stunning vintage glass collection. Located in the town of Savigno, about 30 minutes south of Bologna, they
also own a small inn a few blocks from the restaurant, which makes stumbling home after a four-course wine and food pairing easy.
The plan was to eat there the first night and then play the next two by ear, as we wanted to see what else the area had to offer. But the food was so amazing we could not resist and we ate there all 3 nights. The food was so amazing, I think it ruined me for restaurants for the next leg of the trip and it wasn’t until we got back to Bologna at the end that I ate anything that really compared.
The first night we did the four-course wine and food pairing. We started with parmesan gelato, a rich and creamy spread of dense parmesan flavor with aged balsamic on top, and chicken pate. For our pasta course we had a tortellini in brodo and a tortellone with parmesan cream and speck and then for the main course The Husband had braised beef cheeks that he still cannot stop talking about and I had pork. I have to say I’m not a huge pork eater. But it was so perfectly cooked and amazing that I ordered it on another night. Plus the wine pairings were perfect and made up of all local wines which was a great way to learn more about the Colli Bolognesi region, which isn’t nearly as talked about as Sangiovese di Romagna.
The restaurant has been in the family some 80 years now and that is apparent in every interaction. Marina was always ready with an answer for our many questions when we booked the room and was absolutely patient when our plans changed at the last minute and we had to reschedule everything. When the restaurant closed at night, the chef and owner, Alberto, would draw us maps of places to go the next day, and personally made us appointments at local wineries and emailed us the details.
We had decided to spend two full days there because in addition to food and lodging, they can arrange wine tastings, food tours, truffle hunts and cooking classes. Plus, Savigno is located near Modena and several smaller towns that offer hikes, as well as castles and abbeys to tool around. Unfortunately we were still somewhat jetlagged and getting out of bed around 10 the days we were there, which meant that by the time we got it together and got out into the world, we were arriving places just in time for lunch… Which isn’t the worst problem to have.
But a word about lunch: always have a plan and always call ahead. Our first day in Savigno we drove to Modena with a plan to check out a church or visit an acetaia and then maybe grab lunch at Fantino, where we had had a meal a few years ago that I still think about. If you haven’t guessed by previous posts, The Husband and I are pretty OCD about doing research and calling ahead and for some reason, maybe it was that we had gotten our first decent night’s sleep since landing two days before, we hadn’t done much of either. We got to Modena, the sun was shining, we found parking easily and we were off to check out the charming town. We stopped at the Duomo and then decided to walk to Fantino where we were promptly told they were full and couldn’t seat us for lunch.
Now it’s getting late and as I’ve mentioned numerous times, if you want a good lunch you have to get to where you’re going by 2:00 maybe 2:30. We finally end up at a trattoria specializing in Roman food, which was good but not what either one of us were looking for. We were in Modena; we wanted Modenese food.
Our acetaia plans were similarly flawed. We saw places on the side of the road we thought we could stop at, but when we got there they were either closed or not doing tastings or the tour wasn’t starting for another hour and we had to get back to Savigno to watch a man argue with his dog.
We were going on a truffle hunt. It was April and if you know anything about truffles, you’ll know that’s not exactly truffle season. But we did get to go into the woods and watch as the dog chased down tiny truffles that he would try to eat before the hunter could wrestle it out of his mouth or yell at the dog to come back and stop chasing whatever it is that dogs chase in the woods. We also learned a lot about what happens when the truffles are actually in season and it was nice to walk in the woods for 30 minutes.
Afterward, we went to a local winery for a tasting, which is always in season. In
addition to being a winemaker, the owner made his own prosciutto, built his house and his own wood fired oven where he made pizza, making all American men look like useless pussies.
Our second day was supposed to be rainy so we dressed for the weather in boots and sweaters and then got to the next town over where it was sunny and beautiful and we could have hiked, but now we weren’t dressed for it. So then we went to lunch after which it actually did rain which was too bad because we really could have used a walk then. Fortunately, Alberto had set up appointments at two vineyards for wine tastings, which is the perfect rainy day activity.
After bidding a reluctant farewell to Savigno, we headed towards Parma to check out the Teatro Farnese, a theater made almost entirely out of wood which made it both stunning, as well as incredibly fragile as they would learn during World War II when it was bombed and pretty much destroyed by Allied forces. Fortunately, the theater has been rebuilt. If you’re not churched out, there’s also a Duomo there with some stunning frescoes.
We spent the next two nights in Castell’Arquato, a charming Medieval town not unlike King’s Landing from Game of Thrones, or at least what I remember of it. I haven’t watched it since it’s first season since I have boobs, so seeing them on TV
every week isn’t really exciting for me. We stayed in the exquisitely decorated Casa llica, right in the center of the hill town. In addition to providing a breakfast that featured the best yogurt I’ve ever had, Michelle at Casa Illica also arranged an amazing wine tasting for us at Tollara which featured some of the best wines we had tasted of the Colli Piacentini and two of the most gracious hosts we’ve had at a winery ever. In addition to being incredibly informative about their wines and winemaking, they laid out a spread of meats and cheeses the likes of which I’ve never seen nor will probably see again, and the winemaker even made us tortellini!
This part of Parma is castle country and you can spend all day every day driving from one castle town to the next which sounds exciting and is – but after a few, you get the general idea. Plus, there’s not a lot to see inside so most of the castles fall back on exhibits featuring weapons and methods of torture which were as grotesque as they were imaginative, and we quickly had had enough of that. Also, we were there
on a National holiday, and every town was pretty crowded with Italian families looking for something to do on their day off. The holiday being Liberation Day, marking the end of the Nazi occupation of Italy, however, meant that there were many memorial services, too, and we were fortunate to catch one which was incredibly moving. There are people here who still remember the awfulness of living through the occupation and those are the ones fortunate enough to survive. So many more didn’t. It’s an unimaginable situation and I think so important to not forget what all of those people went through, how they fought to overcome it, and that it can happen anywhere.
We went back to Bologna for two nights, where Tamburini wasn’t as good as we remembered it, MAMBO was, and we discovered 3 new restaurants that lived up to the high standards set the first couple of nights by Amerigo 1934. Two friends had separately recommended La Traviata, and yet I still didn’t think it was possible to be blown away by one more pasta dish and I certainly didn’t think I would be impressed
by a steak or dessert. I was wrong. I was SO wrong. The pasta cooked in red wine was stunningly great and we were blow away by how melt in your mouth tender the tagliata in balsamico was. Ordering dessert felt like a ridiculously needless indulgence at that point, but I am so glad we did. It was the moistest chocolate cake I’ve ever had with a rich, zabaione custard.
Likewise, Osteria Bottega was on every insider’s list, a charming place off a narrow alley, in the seeming middle of nowhere. I didn’t have the Bolognese, but I heard from someone in the food industry that it brought them to tears.
After La Traviata the night before I couldn’t imagine being impressed by anything else, until that is we sat down at Vicolo Columbina.
We started with a sformatina, a light soufflé infused with parmesan and mortadella, which I have never been a fan of, but was perfect in this as it was mostly just for flavor. I then had a perfectly roasted guinea fowl and The Husband had a filet coated in some otherworldly parmesan-herb-lardo-bread crumb mixture that was one of the best things I have ever put in mouth and I would coat myself in it and lick it off like a cat if I could.
New in Bologna since our last time there was a memorial to the members of the Resistance who died during the Nazi occupation. Apparently, the Piazza Maggiore was where those who were caught were shot and after their executions, their loved ones would return to the square and tack pictures of the murdered on the wall. The memorial was made up of many tiles, each one printed with a name and photo of one of those brave men and women, a touching and lasting memorial to their sacrifice that won’t blow away as the winds change.